Someday Soon, Mobile Games Like Clash of Clans Will Hook Users as Reliably as Cigarettes

Decoding the tech world.
April 30 2014 2:09 PM

The Death of Zynga

And the birth of all the other companies perfecting Zynga’s pay-to-win games model.

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Casual gaming has now moved primarily to mobile platforms, with less social integration. Games like Candy Crush Saga and Clash of Clans downplay the MLM aspect that Zynga had leveraged. As well they should: The MLM aspect of these games was a bust because MLM can only retain participants long-term by indenturing them via debt, something that Zynga lacked the ability to do (or else they likely would have tried it). Instead, these games primarily rely on the energy system, with in-app purchases advantaging players over their friends, speeding up gameplay, or simply making near-impossible tasks possible. While this still results in some disasters like EA’s mobile Dungeon Keeper (“a cancer that is eroding the market”), wild successes like last year’s Clash of Clans still prove the F2P model to be the most profitable around.

These newer games do not preserve the sheer desperation of Zynga’s early games, in which merely keeping your farm alive required harassing your friends or spending cash or both. In the absence of that desperation, however, quality of actual gameplay becomes more important—and gameplay was always Zynga’s weak link. Zynga’s games weren’t fun so much as compulsive, and the continued marginalization of Pincus suggests that Zynga is trying to communicate to its stockholders that they are trying to put more fun into the mix. (Creativity wasn’t Pincus’ style: “I don’t fucking want innovation,” he memorably said, “just copy [the competitors] and do it until you get their numbers.”) Their newly released and thoroughly monotonous Farmville 2: Country Escape, however, resorts to the same old extortion tactics, even while it downplays the failed MLM model, giving the impression that Zynga is a flailing zombie. For many users the only Zynga game that matters, really, is the one where you play just as much as you can without paying—as Stephen Totilo put it, the “how-to-not-pay-Zynga game.”

Zynga’s legacy lives on, however, in its less ham-fisted successors, who remain intensely focused on behavioral motivators. A game like Supercell’s Clash of Clans offers actual opportunities for strategy, competition, and enjoyment that go beyond the rote machinations of Zynga’s offerings. Aside from deeper gameplay, the games do not immediately go for the financial jugular. The multiplayer Clash of Clans, for example, offers an initial, compelling free combat/strategy experience that hooks users with minimal time delays. Development of your “village” fortress is initially zippy and allows for quick battles against other new players, but as you advance, completion times become increasingly lengthy, and the incentive to spend money—lest you fall behind your opponents or simply want to play more frequently—grows. Virtual Economists gave an in-depth look to Supercell’s wildly successful Clash of Clans, noting the nonlinear ramp-up in progression times as players become more engaged. Getting your Town Hall from Level 1 to Level 2 takes five minutes; from Level 9 to Level 10 takes two weeks.

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Even as a purely free experience, however, Clash of Clans never becomes as toxic as Zynga’s offerings, which would kill off your crops and animals if you didn’t pay up. As cigarette makers did, makers of F2P games are carefully titrating their product to achieve the right blend of entertainment, compulsion, and monetary extraction.

Avid Clash of Clans player George Yao estimated that he and the top 100 other players each spend at least $2,000 per month to keep their top rankings on the leaderboards. After six months, Yao burnt out: “Nowadays I can’t even stand opening the app, the sight of it. Looking back, I think I must have been insane.” The makers of Clash of Clans are watching closely to prevent more such burnouts, lest their revenue streams dry up like Zynga’s did. The lesson of Zynga for other F2P companies: Exploit, but don’t exterminate.

David Auerbach is a writer and software engineer based in New York. His website is http://davidauerba.ch.